Les Morts Dansant Part 1B
Laelryne saw the party approaching and, briefly, her heart leapt. Half a dozen drow, with nothing unusual about them other than their being somewhat bedraggled, were accompanied by one much taller. Towering above the others, a full head higher than any drow Laelryne had ever seen save only for one; Qilué Veladorn.
As they drew nearer Laelryne’s momentary joy was dispelled. It wasn’t Qilué. This woman lacked the ethereal beauty of Eilistraee’s deceased Chosen. Her features were harder, her arms were corded with muscle, and her studded leather armour was designed for practicality rather than for visual appeal. A longsword hung at her left hip, a handaxe at her right, and a longbow and a quiver were slung across her back. The hilts of daggers were visible protruding from sheaths in her boots. She had the deep brown skin and jet-black hair of one of the transformed Miyeritari and her eyes were amber.
The tall woman halted and dipped her head briefly. “Vendui, jallil. You are the Matron Mother here?”
“We do not use that term,” Laelryne said, “but I am the leader. Laelryne, former Priestess of Eilistraee, at your service. And you are?”
“I am Cierre, ranger of Luruar,” the tall one replied. She swept a hand in a gesture indicating her companions. “And these are refugees from Rilauven.”
“We barely escaped with our lives,” one of them said. A male drow, clad in the dark red leather armour that some of Vhaeraun’s worshippers had favoured, with a short-sword at his left hip. “There was no pursuit, the Lolth-worshippers were satisfied with merely driving us forth from the city, but on the surface we were set upon by darthiir and taken captive. They…” he swallowed hard, and his voice quavered, “they killed three of us, slowly, and declared that they would slay the rest after they attacked a rivvin village. They planned to leave us there, dead, to take the blame. And then, in the nick of time, Cierre came and freed us.”
“A noble deed,” Laelryne said.
Cierre shrugged her shoulders. “It was only what anyone would have done,” she said. “I just happened to be there.”
“No-one else could have done it,” said the spokesman for the drow refugees. “There were twenty of the darthiir and she slew them all.”
Cierre lowered her eyes, dropped her left hand to the pommel of her sword, and caressed the gold orb with her thumb. “It wasn’t hard,” she said. “They had set only four sentries and they weren’t watching each other. I picked them off one at a time and, after that, the rest was easy.”
Easy? Laelryne felt her eyes widening. She deduced that the surface elves had been members of the fanatical Eldreth Veluuthra organisation, for only they would have planned to slay humans and place the blame upon the Drow, and she well knew the skill and ferocity of the Veluuthran warriors.
“It was a good deed, and bravely done, and I thank you. Not only for the rescue of these good folk,” she said, working on the assumption that the refugees were worshippers of Eilistraee or Vhaeraun and so could be regarded as good until they proved otherwise, “but because the elves you slew were our foes as well. We have fought them, more than once, but our clashes have been indecisive. At close quarters we outmatch them but at a distance their bows outrange our crossbows and they have the advantage.”
Cierre’s face, which had been almost expressionless up to now, lit up with a broad smile. “Then let me offer my arms in your service,” she said. “I have a duskwood longbow that was made for me by the finest bowyer of the Elk Tribe Uthgardt, with a draw weight of two hundred pounds, and I can hit my mark at a distance far beyond that which any darthiir can reach.”
Laelryne’s eyes widened again. She wouldn’t have believed it possible for any drow to wield an Uthgardt heavy bow effectively, even with the aid of a Giant Strength belt; it was the weapon of a male human archer, and an exceptionally strong and well-practiced one at that. Of course Cierre was freakishly tall… although that wouldn’t be a tactful way of putting it and would be unlikely to win her friendship.
“Your assistance would be most valuable,” Laelryne said, “and I am honoured. I accept your offer, gladly, but it can only be for a short time. We intend to depart from this world, in the near future, and I doubt that we shall ever return.”
Cierre tilted her head to one side. “An intriguing idea,” she said. “Tell me more.”
“Later,” Laelryne said. “First I must see to these displaced ones who are, no doubt, in need of rest, food, and shelter. I suggest that we talk further over a meal.”
Éomer beamed with delight as he greeted his two guests. “I note you arrive just as we were about to dine,” he teased, after they had exchanged hand-clasps. “I suspect this is no coincidence.”
Gimli gave a short bark of laughter. “You’re mixing us up with the hobbits, Éomer King,” he said, “and the timing was all Legolas’ doing. I just sat behind him on the horse and left the rest to him.”
“Gimli will never make a horseman, I fear,” Legolas said, “but with an axe he has no equal. And that is the purpose of our visit, for word has reached us that you have trouble with Haradrim raiders. His axe, and my bow, are at your service.”
“It seems an age since I have cleaved the skulls of foemen,” said Gimli. “I would not want my skills to grow rusty from disuse.”
“It will take long indeed for them to decline to the level of a common warrior,” said Éomer, “but, for now, I fear that I must disappoint you. You are too late. Grimbold’s éored came upon the Haradrim as they raided a hamlet in the Westfold. It was a bitter struggle, I am told, for the Southerners fought with the desperation of cornered rats. Yet my men had the advantage of numbers and prevailed. Eight Riders fell, alas, but the Haradrim were utterly destroyed.”
“Good to hear,” said Gimli, “but it is a shame that I missed a fight.”
“As did I,” said Éomer. “When a courier arrived to tell of the Haradrim’s presence I at once gathered the household troops to ride forth. However we had barely departed from Edoras when a second messenger met us with the news that the Haradrim had been defeated. If you wish to turn your axe on anyone, friend Gimli, it must be me.”
“Why would I want to do that?” Gimli asked.
“I am afraid that I have met yet another woman who I deem fairer than the Lady Galadriel,” Éomer revealed. “Prince Imrahil’s daughter, Lothíriel, has captured my heart and I will place her above any other.”
Gimli showed his teeth in a grin. “Aye, I saw the girl in Minas Tirith,” he said. “I’ll not deny that she’s pretty, for a human, but she’s not to my taste. It seems that you have a fondness for dark-haired women. I, however, am a dwarf and my preference will always be for gold.”
Éomer laughed. “So I have noticed,” he said. “And, though you are indeed no hobbit, you do have a fondness for food and for ale. Come, and you shall have both.”
Finding places for the two unexpected, but welcome, guests at dinner was accomplished with only a small amount of rearrangement. To find somewhere appropriate for them to sleep would be more of a challenge. Meduseld was overflowing already, with the visitors from Dol Amroth and their entourage taking up all the available rooms, and one could hardly expect two of the Nine Walkers to lie curled up in a corner of the Great Hall… If the worst came to the worst, Éomer decided, he would hand over his own room to his friends and spend the night in Firefoot’s stall. However his housekeeper was showing no signs of agitation and he guessed that she, miracle worker that she was, had already worked out a way to deal with accommodation for the extra guests. He could relax and enjoy the conversation.
“Legolas,” he said, after a round of pleasantries, “perhaps I could make use of your skills while you are here. I would be grateful if you could take a look at the place where the Haradrim were destroyed, and at the sites where we had found other signs of them, and see if you can determine whether we have disposed of them all or whether some may yet remain.”
The elf smiled and nodded. “Of course, my friend,” he said. “I am no match for Aragorn as a tracker, and I am more skilled in the woodlands than upon the open plains, but I will gladly do what I can in the absence of a trained Ranger.”
“Twenty years I have been a ranger in the Silver Marches,” Cierre said, “and now I have been banished.” Her face was expressionless; too much so, tightly controlled, and Laelryne could not tell if Cierre was holding back anger or tears.
“Why?” Thorn asked, bluntly. “Alustriel Silverhand is known as wise and just. She would not have sentenced you to banishment if you did not deserve it.”
Cierre did not reply immediately. She took a bite from a pheasant leg, chewed on it slowly, and swallowed. Only then did she turn her head to face Thorn. “One fight too many,” she said. “A merchant in Everlund tried to cheat me. I took him by the head and thrust his face through his shop counter. Then his guards set upon me and were stupid enough to draw steel.”
“You killed them?” asked Thorn.
“Quite possibly,” Cierre said. “It depends upon how soon they received medical attention. I did not wait to check and the messenger from Lady Alustriel did not mention their condition. He delivered only the sentence of banishment if I did not return with him to face trial.” She raised a goblet to her lips, took a sip of wine, and then returned her attention to the pheasant.
‘Two or three shop guards against the woman who single-handedly slew twenty of the Eldreth Veluuthra,’ Laelryne thought. ‘Yapping dogs against a dire tiger.’ She studied Cierre’s face, trying to read the deeper emotions behind the tall drow’s façade of casual unconcern, and sensed bitterness, loneliness, and pain. “Was it necessary to resort to violence?” Laelryne probed. “Could you not have gone to the authorities?”
“I threatened to do so,” Cierre said, “and the merchant laughed, and he retorted that the Elders would take his word over that of a filthy drow and I would lose my case. So I broke his face.” She lowered her hands and stared into Laelryne’s eyes. “Well? Are you going to refuse my offer of service?”
Laelryne hesitated for a long moment, weighing her decision, before speaking. “No,” she said. “There may have been a better way of handling the situation but you had no one to turn to, no one to guide you, and I will not condemn you for your actions. I ask only that, if some like situation arises again, you come to me before you act. Then, if we cannot obtain justice through the law, we will break the merchant’s face together.”
Cierre’s eyebrows rose. She laid down her food, and her goblet, and stood up briefly before going down on one knee facing Laelryne. She clasped her hands in front of her chin and bowed her head. “Bel’la dos, Jabbress,” she said. “My skills with bow, sword, and axe are yours. A’dos quarth.”
“I accept,” Laelryne said. “Resume your seat. You need not kneel before me.” Cierre sat down and picked up the remnants of her pheasant leg. “Do you, then, intend to come with us when we travel through the portal to another world?” Laelryne asked.
“That is my wish,” Cierre confirmed. “I had planned to leave this area anyway. I am barred from my home in Luruar, I am not welcome in the lands of Neverwinter, and I do not trust the Luskans. Most of my friends in the Elk Tribe have died or fallen from power. My life would be instantly forfeit if I returned to Menzoberranzan. I had thought that, perhaps, I might go to Rashemen. It is said that it is a land of harsh winters and muscular barbarians. I like both. That is why I headed this way, for I had heard of the portal, and I hoped it could transport me there and save me months of trekking across the continent.”
“There would have been no welcome for you in Rashemen, for the drow are hated and feared there,” Liriel Baenre put in. “You would be attacked on sight.”
“So, no different from anywhere else, then,” said Cierre.
“And that is why I plan to escape to somewhere we are unknown,” said Laelryne. She sighed. “If, that is, we can find such a place.”
Laelryne lowered the book and raised her eyes to meet Liriel’s. “Am I interpreting this ancient script correctly?” she asked. “It seems almost too good to be true. We can go to the ancient homeland of the elves, from which our ancestors departed long before the transformation of the Ilythiiri and the Miyeritari into Drow, where we could make a completely fresh start. Can it really be so?”
“My reading of the text is exactly the same as yours,” Liriel confirmed. “I think the world described fits the criteria you laid down quite well.”
“It does,” Laelryne agreed. “Assuming, of course, that the danger from which those ancestors fled is not still present.”
“Ah,” said Liriel, her pretty face lighting up with a smile, “that’s where the Rituals of Shaundakul come in. They are instructions for the casting of divinations that warn of perils beyond the portal. If that great danger is still there we will know and can choose an alternative destination. There are several other worlds which could be viable options.”
“One of which is the world the Imaskari plundered for slaves,” Laelryne said. “If records of that time still exist there then any who arrive through portals would be treated with suspicion or even slain on sight. I believe that this ‘Arda’, whence came our people, is the best option.”
“I thought you’d say that,” Liriel said. “I’ll get ready to perform the rituals.”
“And I shall begin preparations for the journey,” said Laelryne. “I must check on our stores of provisions, clothes, weapons…”
“The cares of a leader,” said Liriel.
“Indeed,” said Laelryne. “I never expected, nor wanted, such responsibilities. The only thing at which I excelled was swordplay. Qilué, Elkantar, Iljrene, Rylla, and Eldara all were senior to me. And then, suddenly, they were all dead and the Promenade had fallen. It was left to me to take care of the survivors only because there is no-one else.”
“You are doing it well,” Liriel praised.
Laelryne gave a short, bitter, laugh. “I’m glad you think so. I’m just stumbling along trying to do what I think is right and hoping I don’t get everyone killed.”
Liriel raised her eyebrows. “And yet your people have confidence in you. They are willing to follow you even to another world.”
“I will try not to let them down,” said Laelryne. She stood up, realised that she was still holding the book, and handed the ancient tome back to Liriel. “I must get on with those preparations I mentioned,” Laelryne said. “If our provisions and arms are in good order, and your divinations show that the destination is not excessively perilous, then we will depart in a matter of days.”
The spy brought word of the date when the Princess would leave Edoras to return to Gondor. Amir Nizar had made his plans in advance. They would have to take a circuitous route through Rohan, staying away from the settlements as much as possible, and so they would have to set off well before the convoy departed. However if they arrived at the selected ambush point too soon they would have to loiter there, awaiting the approach of their prey, and this would increase the chance that their presence would be discovered. Correct timing was crucial. The Amir made his calculations and gave the necessary orders.
The last thing they did before departing was to slay the captive Dunlending women. When the Haradrim rode forth they left behind them a village occupied only by the dead.
Rohan was a land full of widows, after the casualties the éoreds had suffered in the war, but the presence of the Swan Knights of Dol Amroth meant that there were as many men as women at the feast held to say farewell to the Princess and her entourage.
Éomer was not the only one for whom this occasion heralded a parting from one for whom he cared. One of the Swan Knights, a veteran with touches of grey in his hair and his beard, had become involved with the widow of Déorwine, chief of the King’s Knights, who had been slain at the gates of Mundburg. It was too soon after her husband’s death for there to be any question yet of betrothal but Éomer was sure that the Knight would be returning to Rohan. He was a worthy man, and a fine warrior, and if he wished to transfer his allegiance he would be welcome. But that was a matter for the future.
Tonight there was feasting and then there was dancing. Rohirric dances were very different from the formal balls of Gondor but Lothíriel coped very well. And not merely coped but, evidently, enjoyed herself.
The whole of her visit, Éomer thought, had gone very well. The people had taken to Lothíriel very quickly. Her natural charm, and the tact and diplomacy she had learned as the daughter of an important personage of Gondor, enabled her to win over even those who had initially been suspicious of the foreign woman. Not that she was entirely without flaws, Éomer had discovered that she could have a hot temper at times, but she was quick to apologise if she was in the wrong and to forgive if she was in the right. She only showed real anger at acts of cruelty or injustice. She would make a fine Queen of Rohan.
And, Éomer knew, he wanted very much for her to be his wife. He wanted to lie with her at night and wake with her in the morning light. He wanted to dine with her, to ride with her, to sit with her, to share his life with her in every way. To part with her, even temporarily, would hurt. It was, unfortunately, necessary. The rules of Gondorian propriety had to be observed. And so, in the morning, she would set off to return to her home.
He wanted her to stay. He wanted to go with her. He wanted to strip Edoras of Riders and send five éoreds with her to make absolutely, positively, certain that no harm could possibly befall her.
Unfortunately he was a king and owed a duty to his people. He had to stay in Edoras and continue the work of repairing Rohan from the ravages of the war. And he had to retain the army at home, ready to defend Rohan against any who might seek to strike at the weakened realm; there were still hostile Dunlendings, and some remnants of Saruman’s orcs, posing a potential threat. He was bolstering Lothíriel’s escort of Swan Knights with Riders of Rohan, certainly, but not even a full éored. Instead he was sending an éored that had suffered heavy casualties at the Pellenor Fields; thirty-eight uninjured Riders remaining out of their initial strength of one hundred and twenty. They, added to the twenty Swan Knights of Dol Amroth, should be more than sufficient to deter any foes.
Éomer put the thought out of his mind and concentrated on enjoying his last evening with Lothíriel before her departure. Storing up every word, every dance, and every touch of her hand to see him through their separation.
Including storing up the distinctly unusual, and definitely memorable, sight of Lothíriel dancing with Gimli.
Éomer watched with mingled amusement and envy. He would rather be dancing with her himself, of course, but for some reason Legolas had insisted on joining him for a serious conversation and Gimli had snatched up Lothíriel. Still, the contrast of the willowy princess with the compact block of muscle that was the dwarf was enjoyable to watch. Lothíriel’s broad smile and twinkling eyes showed that she was enjoying herself as well – and, for a wonder, was managing to avoid having her feet trodden on by the dwarf’s iron-shod boots.
“I confess I do not understand the human attitude to courtship,” Legolas said, “especially the customs of the nobility of Gondor.”
It took a couple of seconds for Éomer to realise that Legolas, who had been in the middle of reporting that he had so far been unable to confirm that the Haradrim raiders who had been slain constituted the entirety of the Southron presence in Rohan, had changed the subject. “Oh?” he said.
“Yes, for it is obvious to all that your fëa and that of Lothíriel sing in harmony,” Legolas observed, “and your marriage is inevitable. You wish to wed her, she desires the same, and her father’s approval is certain. Yet her brothers watch over her like hawks to ensure that you do not have a moment alone with her. When you dance they frown at the slightest physical contact that might exceed the bounds of their, what is it called, propriety. Very strange.”
“True,” Éomer agreed.
“Whereas they regard her as completely safe with Gimli,” Legolas went on, “and their attention has wavered.”
Indeed Amrothos was now engrossed in a discussion of cavalry tactics with Marshalls Elfhelm and Erkenbrand, his eyes never even straying in the direction of his sister and the dwarf, and Erchirion was deep in conversation with that Swan Knight who was involved with Déorwine’s widow.
“Are you saying Lothíriel is not safe with Gimli?” Éomer queried, perplexed.
Legolas laughed. “There is none more honourable than Gimli in all of Middle Earth,” he said, “and Lothíriel does not have golden hair. You need have no fears.” He set down his goblet and pushed back his chair. “The room grows overly hot for my taste,” he said, “and I feel the need for a little fresh air. I suggest, Lord Éomer, that you accompany me for a brief stroll outside to continue our conversation. You may find it to your advantage.” Then, much to Éomer’s surprise, Legolas closed one eye in a definite wink.
Éomer was even more puzzled now but he went along with the elf’s suggestion and accompanied Legolas out of the Hall. Once outside he saw Legolas take a deep breath, filling his lungs with the cool night air, and Éomer did the same. The air inside the Hall had smelt of wood-smoke, roasted meat, and spilled ale; the air outdoors was clean and fresh save for the slight aroma of horse manure which was ever-present in and around Edoras. To the Rohirrim, of course, that scent was not unpleasant.
“You are indeed fortunate, Éomer King,” Legolas remarked. “Lothíriel of Dol Amroth is a maiden fair, virtuous, and intelligent. She will make a fine Queen of Rohan and I am certain that you will be very happy together.”
“I believe so,” Éomer agreed. He thought he detected a slight tone of envy in the elf’s voice and focused his gaze on Legolas. “You have never spoken of your family,” he said, “except that I know your father is King Thranduil of Mirkwood. Tell me, do you have a wife, or a betrothed, waiting for you in your father’s realm?” The answer, if Legolas was willing to give it, might enable Éomer to put to rest certain suspicions, raised on occasion by some among the Rohirrim, about the relationship between Legolas and Gimli.
Legolas shook his head. “I have never met the elf-maid whose fëa sings with mine,” he said, “and I now suspect that she is not now to be found in Middle Earth. Perhaps I shall meet her after I sail West.”
The door from the Hall opened once more, before Éomer could reply, and Gimli led Lothíriel out into the night.
“What a coincidence that we should meet Éomer out here,” Gimli said. “Well, Princess, I have things to talk about with Legolas, and so I shall leave you in the care of your host for a few moments, if you will it.” There was not enough light to be certain but Éomer strongly suspected that he saw Gimli’s left eye close in a broad wink.
“And now,” said Legolas, “you can bid your lady a proper goodbye.”
Éomer grinned and said “Thank you, my friends.” Then he opened his arms, welcomed Lothíriel into his embrace, and met his lips with hers in a tender but passionate farewell kiss.
Ebony skin glinted in the moonlight as they danced. It would be the last time they danced by the light of Selûne; soon they would be in a world where a different moon swam through the night sky. Now they danced to say farewell to their destroyed homes, to their dead gods, and to Faerûn.
Those who had been worshippers of Eilistraee danced naked, as was their custom; the Vhaeraun worshippers were less comfortable unclad and most of them retained at least some of their clothing. Cierre, despite not being a worshipper of either of the two deceased deities, stripped down to her sword-belt and joined in the dance.
Some of the dancers shed tears as they gyrated beneath the moon. Some smiled and laughed, carried away by the rhythm and the motion, forgetting their cares for a while. There were those who slipped away, by pairs, into the shadows outside the clearing. Some were those in committed relationships but others were not. They may have sought to seek comfort and support before setting out on the journey into the unknown, or to say farewell to Faerûn in the most primal way possible, or merely to slake temporary lusts inspired by the nude dancing; Laelryne did not know the motives and did not feel that they were any of her business.
She did not participate. No-one made any such suggestions to her and, even had a male she found attractive made an advance, she would have felt it her duty to refuse. As the leader she had to stay apart, impartial, and aloof. Eventually, as the fire died and the dancers tired, Laelryne went alone to her bed.
And the next day, once all had arisen and broken their fasts, they assembled in front of the stone arch that housed the portal; the Voice of the Lost, greatest of the Song Portals of vanished Illefarn, the gate that spanned worlds.
Liriel cast the spell that opened the gate and a shimmering blue haze filled the arch. “Vedaust, Laelryne,” she said. “Aluvé.”
“Vedaust, Liriel,” Laelryne replied. “If you change your mind…”
“I doubt that I will,” said Liriel, “but I have the spell to open the gate. If the time comes when I must leave Faerûn then I will join you in Arda.”
“You will be welcome,” said Laelryne. “Vedaust… abbil.”
Then Laelryne gathered her people together and led them forward. They had numbered forty-one at the time when Tebolvir had first suggested that they depart from Faerûn. Since that time they had been joined by eleven other refugees, including Cierre and the six she had brought with her, but four had fallen in clashes with the Eldreth Veluuthra. Forty-eight drow advanced through the portal and vanished from the face of Faerûn.
Liriel never saw them again.